25-year-old Melody is still struggling with the demands of being a newlywed wife when she is faced with the even greater challenge of being a newlywed widow in Bekah Brunstetter’s singular new comedy Be A Good Little Widow, now getting a splendid West Coast Premiere at San Diego’s The Old Globe.

Widow14_print No, you didn’t read the word “comedy” wrong. Though Be A Good Little Widow does indeed have its moments of stark, unflinching drama, part of what makes Brunstetter’s one-acter so memorable is its playwright’s ability to find laughter in life’s most tragic moments, that and the four painfully human, ultimately endearing characters she has created.

Widow11_print Melody (Zoë Winters) is doing her best to be a good little wife to her lawyer husband Craig (Ben Graney) when first we meet the newlyweds. A move to Craig’s native Connecticut may bring Melody’s slightly older hubby in closer proximity to his widowed mother Hope (Christine Estabrook), but it leaves his flighty bride isolated in their New England home and spending far too many hours waiting for Craig to return from yet another business trip.

“Project Runway” and yoga help Melody to while away those lonely hours, but too much time on her hands leaves her vulnerable to the boyish charms of Craig’s hunky paralegal Brad (Kelsey Kurz), though to Melody’s credit, this goes no further than a bit of harmless albeit risky flirtation when Brad pops by on an errand for Craig.

Widow18_print Then the unthinkable happens. Craig’s commuter plane crashes in upstate New York, killing all sixty aboard, and Melody must deal with her husband’s sudden loss, the condescending presence of Craig’s overbearing mother, and the still dangerously attractive Brad.

Did I mention that Be A Good Little Widow is a comedy?

Widow12_print It is, and one blessed by the presence at The Old Globe of SUNY Purchase grad Winters, who manages to be not only quirky as all get-out but utterly adorable to boot. A lesser talent playing Melody and Be A Good Little Widow might sink under the weight of all her quirks. Winters keeps you on Melody’s side even at her most oddball, and one can only hope that the New York-based actress will make frequent trips out west. She is a keeper.

Widow17_print Equally extraordinary is the divine Estabrook, every bit as memorable here as she was in the Blank Theatre’s production of Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them a few years back. In that screwball comedy, Estabrook was in ditzy “Melody” mode. Here, she is steely perfection as a grieving mother who finds herself now utterly alone, even as she continues her by-the-rules mourning of Craig’s father, who years before had left her a young widow herself.

Not surprisingly, scenes between Melody and Hope are the play’s richest and often its most hilarious. Melody wants Skittles at Craig’s funeral. A horrified Hope responds that she has already hired a caterer. Hope suggests that Melody join her Widows’ League. Melody would rather find comfort in the rap music Craig played while working out. (“Apparently, when he was running he liked to feel like he could kill people,” she quips.) It’s no wonder, then, that their gradual softening to each other as two women united in shared grief proves so powerful and rewarding.

Widow15_print Graney is excellent as a young husband who finds himself far too often away from home, fantasy sequences after Craig’s death making his part—and Graney’s performance—even meatier. Kurz (who played another Brad in The Old Globe’s Rocky Horror Show) is once again absolutely terrific, this time as a young man whose devotion to his boss makes his attraction to the boss’s wife all the more poignant, a good guy tempted to do things a good guy shouldn’t.

Director Hal Brooks keeps Brunstetter’s play rooted in reality, aided and abetted by his couldn’t-be-better cast. Still, if Brooks has directed theater-in-the-round before, you wouldn’t know it by a pair of extended Melody-Brad scenes in which this reviewer and his neighbors saw only Kurz’s shoulders and back. Pity those on the opposite side forced to imagine the many emotions playing on Winters’ face for two entire scenes.

Jason Simms scenic design is, by arena stage definition, primarily furniture based, but what marvelous color and style choices he has made. Seth Reiser’s imaginative lighting, Ryan Rumery’s topnotch sound design, and David Israel Reynoso’s character-revealing costumes complete a thoroughly professional design package.

Anjee Nero is stage manager. Casting is by Caparelliotis Casting. Edgar M. González is assistant director, Sean Fanning assistant scenic designer, Mary Rochon assistant costume designer, and M. Florian Staap associate sound designer. Video content is by Paul Peterson. Sarah Kolman is production assistant.

The fine line between comedy and tragedy is a tough one to tread, but one that Brunstetter treads to perfection in this beautifully written, exquisitely performed gem of a comedy. Be A Good Little Widow is one good little play indeed, and one great little production at The Old Globe.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
May 19, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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